Tag Archive | society

Book review: Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium (Ilium, #1)Ilium by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allosaurs, Greek gods, and space-going Shakespeare enthusiasts? Dan Simmons must have read my Christmas wish list.

Troy is at war. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, and the Trojans, led by Priam and Paris, wage pitched and pitiless battles, aided by the gods and observed by humans. These humans — the scholics — were once experts on Greek poetry and ancient history. They were reconstructed by the gods from their DNA, and then brought back to make sure the path of the war follows the path of the Iliad as laid out by Homer. Thomas Hockenberry is one such scholic, tramping around the battlefield in the guise of various soldiers, making notes and reporting back to the Muse. One day, after nine years of such a life, he is summoned by Aphrodite and told he is to alter the course of things. He is to kill Pallas Athena.

On Earth, humans live in an idyllic setting, pursuing a sybaritic lifestyle. The world is a constant round of dinner parties, picnics, long walks through the woods, and casual sex. No work, no worries, no schooling, no commitments, their every need is seen to by the voynix, mechanical servants who cook, clean, and care for them in their Eden. Daeman, who, like most others of society, is spectacularly incurious about the whys and wherefores of his world, and who collects butterflies and bed partners with equal vigor, arrives at the estate of his cousin, Ada, for a birthday party. He is shocked to discover that the party is not in celebration of someone’s 20th — after which they will be whisked away to the Rings and then returned after rejuvenation — but of Harman’s 99th. In essence, it’s Harman’s going-away party, for he has only one more year of life. But a chance encounter with an allosaurus changes everything.

On Europa, the Five Moon Consortium, a conclave of biomechanical beings, gathers to discuss the 600-year lack of contact from the post-humans and the more recent (in the last 200 years) apparent terraforming of Mars. The consortium is especially concerned with unusually massive amounts of quantum-shift activity centered on Mons Olympus, and decides to send an expedition to investigate. Mahnmut, a Europan moravec, is excited to be included in this expedition with his friend Orphu, an Ionian moravec, and looks forward to continuing their discussions of Shakespeare and Proust and literature in general.  The expedition sets off well enough but soon suffers a severe setback, leaving Mahnmut and Orphu to make the best of what may be a fatal error.

Simmons adopted three different voices to tell these stories. The Trojan saga echoes Homeric prose, to the point of opening the novel with a paraphrase of the opening lines of the Iliad itself; and it is in this opening paragraph that we first begin to understand the sorrow and tragedy of the scholic Hockenberry and the rest of the cast of characters Simmons introduces. The story of Daeman, Ada, and Harman is told in simple descriptive language akin to the childlike outlook of the humans themselves; while the conversations of Mahnmut, Orphu, and the rest of the moravecs are full of technobabble and high literary analysis. This narrative trick is effective, if occasionally jarring when 2017SFFReadingChallengemoving from artless human idyll to high Homeric tragedy.

Three settings. Three stories. Three disparate and wandering paths that lead to the same destination? We’ll find out when I read the sequel.

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Read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge.  Click that badge over there to see more reviews. And once there, consider joining us!

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Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2003 Review

Neil Gaiman is one of the most original writers currently publishing. He defies category: how does one classify an author whose work ranges from SF to horror to social commentary to parable and back, all within the pages of one book? His style is reminiscent of Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison, perhaps with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for seasoning.

AMERICAN GODS tells the story of the war brewing between the “old” gods of the United States — the piskies and brownies and vrokolaks brought over from the Old Country by immigrant believers — and the “new” gods of technology and progress worshipped by the descendants of those immigrants. One human, an ex-con called Shadow, is enlisted by a man calling himself Wednesday to help unite the old gods in resisting the new. Shadow, at loose ends after the sudden loss of his wife, agrees to work for Wednesday, and is plunged headlong into intrigue and strangeness, where people are not who they appear, time does not track, and even the dead do not stay in their graves.

A haunting tone poem of a novel. Highly recommended.

2017 Re-read

Although I had been intending to re-read this book for years, the impending debut of the Starz series (April 30!) finally got this book down from the shelf and into my hands in mid-April.

Seasons of ReadingIt’s funny how time can distort the memory of a once-read novel. I remembered this story as being mostly a road trip with Shadow and Wednesday. While there is definitely a great deal of travel involved, I had completely forgotten the events that take place in sleepy, quiet, wintry Lakeside. I had also forgotten the outcome of Wednesday’s machinations, and how truly noble Shadow turns out to be.

Now I’m prepared for the TV show. It better not be awful.

2017SFFReadingChallenge(Side observation: I expect researching this novel is what eventually led Gaiman to write Norse Mythology.)

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Read as part of the Spring Into Horror read-a-thon.  This is the only book I managed to finish during the time frame.  Join us next time!

Also read for the 2017 Award Winning SF/F Challenge.  You can still join in on that one.

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Video review: The Day of the Triffids (BBC mini-series)


This 1981 BBC mini-series wasn’t what I intended to order from Netflix.  I had intended to order the 1962 B-movie starring Howard Keel, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager camped out in front of the television watching Bob Wilkins host Creature Features on Saturday afternoons.  So when the single-disc mini-series, comprised of six 26-minute episodes, arrived, I was somewhat puzzled until I looked at our Netflix account and realized “Oh, yeah, the 1962 film isn’t available, that’s why I got this one.” (IMDB indicates there’s yet another version, a two-part mini-series made in 2009, also British.)

No matter.  I watched it anyway, the day after I finished the book.  And the show is a faithful adaptation of its source material, with much of the dialogue coming straight out of the book.  It’s been updated so that it takes place in the early 1980s, so the chauvinism and sexism are somewhat lessened — omigosh, there’s an actual female who speaks from a position of authority — but the basics of the plot are fully intact.  I was fascinated by the depiction of the triffids in this version.  Keep in mind the only triffid I had ever seen on screen was that from the 1962 film — to the best of my recollection, they looked vaguely like walking asparagus with flailing “arms” and a kind of a dandelion-type “head”.  But the 1981 version looked a great deal like a titan arum, also known as a corpse flower.

PerfumeHere’s the titan arum my husband and I visited when it flowered at UC Davis in 2007. It’s huge. And it stinks.  Imagine this plant on a six-foot stalk, with the ability to walk — well, shuffle — and sting and eat carrion flesh.

Absolutely terrifying.

I didn’t make the connection until seeing it on the screen, but that first episode, set in the hospital where Bill Masen awakens to a silent world, vividly reminded me of the first episode of The Walking Dead.  Same eerie quiet, same vacant streets, same desperate effort to find other living human beings and discover what happened.

So, set aside the cheesy early 80s fashion — sheesh, did we really wear our makeup like that? — and the horrendous videotape production quality so common in early 80s TV (on both sides of the Atlantic), and prepare yourself for about two and a half hours of post-apocalyptic fun and games, dodging deadly triffids and ruthless press gangs and militia groups intent on enforcing their version of law and order.

Reviewed for R.I.P XI “Peril on the Screen” Challenge.  Click the badge to find out more about this annual event.

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Book review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we first meet Holly Sykes, it’s the mid-80s and she is a sullen teenager who discovered her boyfriend, with whom she had planned to live after running away from home, cheated on her with her “best mate”. When we last meet her, it’s the 2040s, and she’s trying to figure out a way to save her granddaughter from a living hell. In between is a ramble through the world of late 20th, early 21st Century, peopled with narcissistic, entitled English schoolmates and other people of consequence, some of whom manage to grow up and become decent people, but most of whom don’t. And lurking behind the scenes, manipulating people and events, are creatures with special abilities who snatch people with special abilities out of the world and use them for…nourishment? Entertainment? All of the above. It sounds like a mess, but it’s glorious and frightening and altogether wonderful.

The Bone Clocks is my second David Mitchell novel. Cloud Atlas was the first. Often when I read a second novel by a new-to-me author, I’m disappointed because it doesn’t match up to the excellence of the first novel I read. Not so in this case. The Bone Clocks is every bit as magical as Cloud Atlas. I’ll definitely be getting more David Mitchell from the library.

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Book review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Franks

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the PeopleListen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.

*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *

I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.

Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”

Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.

The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.

Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.

It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.

Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.

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Book review: I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

I Am No OneI Am No One by Patrick Flanery

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This passage right here:

“…I wonder if, in the past, we didn’t trust each other more, knowing there would be stretches of every day when we would not be able to contact our spouses or children or parents, trusting they were simply getting on with their lives and being faithful to us and whatever they later reported having done was true, or at least plausible. For each of us, the freedom of not being reached, of wandering untracked through the city, browsing in bookstores and libraries, living life in a way the the mind did not feel hunted or followed or simply distracted by the silliness of unwanted messages and the ability to check stock prices every thirty seconds or receive alerts of breaking news, must have meant that as recently as a decade ago we were thinking more and reacting less. Is it any wonder we entered a more reactionary age? Our technology is teaching us to react rather than reflect, so that even the leftwing movements of the present seem no longer to be based in ideas as much as in the constantly shifting desire to respond to offense or inequality or injustice, and yet the discourse surrounding whatever the movement or outrage du jour might be seems too often founded on a wafer of historical and ideological ignorance.”

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. And I recognize the inherent irony of posting a book review on a social media site while longing in some ways for a return to a less public, less monitored and scrutinized way of life.

Jeremy O’Keefe returns to New York after more than a decade of teaching at Oxford. He had originally fled to England after his divorce and a failure to gain tenure at a particular American university; he left Oxford when offered a position with another equally well-respected institute of higher learning. He finds an apartment and settles back into the daily routine of a New York City dweller. At the same time he realizes he’s lost touch with his old friends and they have moved on; he doesn’t fit anymore. His relationship with his now-married daughter is awkward and strained; he has no contact with his ex-wife; he spends a great deal of time alone, ruminating on his life and his circumstances; he pretends he likes it that way.

One day a young man strikes up a conversation with him in a coffee shop. A few days later, he encounters the same young man at his daughter’s party. And then a third run-in… In a city the size of New York, Jeremy thinks these meetings can’t be mere coincidence. Is this young man, Peter, following him? Is Peter behind the mysterious boxes of computer printouts that begin arriving at his apartment? Or is it the US government? Or is Jeremy imagining all of it?

The novel jumps back and forth between the years in Oxford and the present-day happenings in New York, gradually revealing the circumstances which led to Jeremy’s acceptance of the New York job offer, and which may be cause for government surveillance and questioning Jeremy’s loyalty to the country of his birth.

This novel moves at an almost glacial pace, with a great deal of internal (and self-serving) monologue, but it’s so beautifully written, I can forgive the navel-gazing. Truthfully, though, don’t most of us have these internal conversations? Maybe my empathy for Jeremy and his endless introspection stems from being an introvert myself.

Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program for the opportunity to read this book.

(Personal aside: I read this novel shortly after my husband and I returned from our first trip to New York. We stayed entirely in Manhattan and spent a great deal of time in the areas where the New York sections of this novel take place. It was great fun to place the streets and landmarks on the map of the city I now hold in my head; to recognize what it’s like to ride the subway and get out at Columbus Circle; to acknowledge how crowded the sidewalks are and how unlikely it is to see the same person in three different places on three different days. This extra bit of personal knowledge will enhance any book set in New York that I read in the future.)

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Book reviews: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Oh, a family saga stretching out over decades. If I’d known that, I probably wouldn’t have picked this book. Well-written, at least.”

That was my reaction upon reaching the end of the first section and jumping forward a decade or so in the second section. Pretty well sums up the book for me, even after finishing it.

One summer, shortly before World War I, George Sawle brings his school chum Cecil Valance home with him for a weekend. (One must use the phrase “school chum” because this IS England after all, and an upper-class Edwardian England, at that.) Cecil is a user and a player, as the astute reader will recognize at once. He’s also a poet, albeit not a particularly good one, but one whose good looks, personal charm, and social graces entice his audience to overlook the banality of his art. This brief summer visit results in a poem that somehow manages to transcend its author’s limitations; and the circumstances that led to the creation of this poem resonate through the decades that follow.

If, like me, you take an instant dislike to young Cecil, the adulation that follows through the rest of the novel (especially in Part 2, the immediate aftermath of WWI) may be annoying. Push through it, though, and pay attention to the damage this young man caused. Actions have consequences, lies beget lies, and some lies and consequences don’t reveal themselves until much, much later.

An engaging read.

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Book review: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue (The Giver Quartet, #2)Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in the same world as The Giver, Gathering Blue provides a look at a way of life far different than that of the previous novel. Kira lives in a rough-and-tumble village with no technology and a ruthless intolerance for weakness or deformity. Kira, born with a malformed leg, is lucky to be alive at all and, now that her mother has died, she fears she will either be killed outright or driven out of the village to starve and die in the wilderness. But Kira has a gift for weaving and embroidery that the village leaders find valuable; thus, she is taken into their care and set to work repairing the Singer’s Robe. As did our young protagonist in The Giver, Kira soon discovers all is not as it appears, and the leaders of the community are keeping secrets from the general population.

I enjoyed this story more than I did The Giver; this time my expectations were lower and I read it for what it was: a story aimed at young people. It’s still simplistic; the characters are still undeveloped; and the plot is paper-thin; but for an audience of, say, 12-year-olds, it’s perfect. Like the other books in this series, this one is scarcely the length to call a novella, and was easily read over the course of about two, maybe three hours on one evening. As such, it was a pleasant way to pass the time. I’ll get the rest of the series from the library soon.

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Book review: California by Edan Lepucki

CaliforniaCalifornia by Edan Lepucki

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cal and Frida live in a little house in the woods. They farm what they can, they trade for goods they can’t make themselves, and they make the best of their primitive existence. Frida occasionally longs for the days when she had electronics and warm clothes, but this is the life they’ve chosen, and it was the best choice they could make at the time. Then Frida discovers she’s pregnant, and now the two of them have to choose anew: stay where they are, by themselves, and hope they and the baby survive; or travel to a nearby secretive settlement and hope to be taken in?

Set some 100 years or so into the future, California is a bleak vision of a possible future world, one wrecked by climate change and pollution; stratified by extreme income inequality; a world in which people escape dangerous cities rife with domestic terrorism to eke out a desperate existence in the wilderness because it’s safer to starve in the forest than scrounge in the suburbs.

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Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Barry Fairbrother, city councilman of the small English village of Pagford, dies at the beginning of this book, and everything we learn about him is filtered through the eyes of the people who knew him — with the single exception of his wife; everything we learn about her is also filtered through the people who know her. It’s an interesting way to construct a story: the two individuals at the center at the entire plot have no say in how they’re perceived by the reader. I suspect that if Barry and his widow Mary could speak for themselves, we’d have an entirely different story.

At any rate, Barry’s unexpected death leaves a “casual vacancy” on the city council. Said vacancy quickly becomes a hotly-contested seat in a hastily-called special election. A zoning decision hinges on the outcome: Barry and his allies had been fighting to keep the slum-ridden “The Fields” connected to Pagford while other council members had been equally adamant about cutting the neighborhood loose and giving it back to a neighboring township to better preserve the beauty and quality of their fair city.

Said beauty and quality aside, Pagford is an English Peyton Place filled with backstabbing, infidelity, and unrequited love. During the run-up to and aftermath of this election, vicious rivalries erupt, families and relationships fall apart, teenagers rebel in spectacular and destructive fashion, and further tragedy strikes down the innocent.

An engaging read, well-written, and genuinely shocking in some parts. Recommended.

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